~ News, announcements, events, and ruminations about my books, including Slant of Light, This Old World, The Language of Trees, and Scattered Lights, and about creativity, fiction, Missouri, the Ozarks, and anything else that strikes my fancy
When I was a kid, our parents would occasionally take my brother and me to what we called the “Castor River swimming hole” or alternatively, the “Castor River Shut-Ins.” Mom, as usual, fretted about our safety, while we boys just enjoyed the sweep of water through the tight passages of rock, bouncing downstream to where Dad waited to catch us.
There are a couple of swimming holes on the upper Castor, a river that receives much less attention than its more famous cousins to the west, and I honestly can’t remember which one we visited in my childhood. But one of the most unexpectedly beautiful places in the Ozarks is what is now the Amidon Memorial Conservation Area in northeast Madison County.
If you’ve visited Elephant Rocks, you know the remarkable pink granite that crops up in places across Iron, St. Francois, and Madison counties. At Amidon, that pink is lighter than at other places, far more sculpted, and shaped by the flow of water into a remarkable display.
Why doesn’t the Castor get more attention? It’s shorter, for one thing, and it quickly traverses from dramatic shut-ins to a relatively uninteresting, muddy stream, with lots of debris and agricultural runoff. But for several stretches, it’s as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks. Its lack of fame means that you’ll probably have the place almost to yourself, although do note that most of the ownership along the Castor is private. So you have to look for access points. The pink granite is unearthly in its strange beauty, and the flooding and debris has created a rich alluvium that lends to the growth of wildflowers in abundance.
I don’t think I’d let my kids bounce down through the shut-ins, though, unless the water was pretty low.
It has already been another good year for writing from the Ozarks, and it’s only March. I have several books that I plan to write about in the coming days, but a good place to start is with this one, the third volume of Brooks Blevins’ History of the Ozarks.
Subtitled “The Ozarkers,” this volume takes us into the late 20th century, what we might call the modern history of the Ozarks. And there’s something in it for everyone.
The book opens with the legendary 1934 contretemps between Springfield businessman John T. Woodruff and folklorist Vance Randolph at the first-ever regional folk festival in the Ozarks, during which Woodruff accused Randolph and his associates of tarnishing the image of the Ozarks with their descriptions of Ozarkers as ignorant hillbillies, superstitious, barefoot moonshiners who idled away their days waiting for the next opportunity to coon hunt. The fact that Randolph’s portrayal came from actual interviews with actual Ozarkers, of course, was a difficulty to this accusation. But the conflict presages and sets the theme for the book: the divide between the modern Ozarks as perceived and the modern Ozarks as lived.
The “real” Ozarks have never been a place as simple as Dogpatch, U.S.A., and we all know that. This book shows just how complicated the history of the real Ozarks has been, with waves of immigration and internal migration, a constantly shifting economy based on the extractive industries of mining, farming, and timber, and an array of conflicting perceptions both from outside and within. So much has happened within the last century in the Ozarks that the book has to move swiftly from incident to incident and theme to theme, and sometimes I wished for it to slow down and devote more time to the things I am interested in the most; but such is the nature of historical writing. The book clocks in at about 300 pages and could easily have been three times that long, and still wouldn’t have covered everything.
One section I especially appreciated was its careful delineation of the changing agricultural economy. When I was a kid growing up in Madison and Reynolds counties, the typical farm was very much “mixed agriculture”: a pen full of hogs, a field with a few dozen cattle, a chickenhouse, maybe some row crops in the bottomland, even sometimes a specialty crop like sorghum or ducks. That model has nearly disappeared these days, replaced by farms that are strictly pasture-and-cattle or rows of giant chicken or turkey sheds (or occasionally, feeder pig operations) with the farm operator in a feudal contract with one of the big poultry juggernauts. Dairy farming has nearly disappeared. The societal impacts of these economic changes are hard to see at first, but when you consider them carefully, one obvious implication is that it becomes harder and harder to maintain a self-sufficient life in the remoter regions as farming becomes more dependent on connections to the larger industrial-agriculture machine. Thus rural counties empty out while population centers remain viable. In addition, these large operations, which seek to minimize labor costs through mechanization, rely on low-skill immigrant populations for their workers, leading to the pockets of impoverished immigrants we see in places like Noel and Aurora. The ripple effects of this demographic shift are hard to miss.
A History of the Ozarks: Volume 3 is now resting on my shelf alongside the other two volumes, but I don’t expect it to stay there long. It’s going to be taken down again and again as I re-read its accounts of Ozark historical events and refresh my understanding of the region’s rich, troubled, and treasured history.
About three and a half years ago, I wrote on this blog about the 1939 tenant farmers’ strike in the Missouri Bootheel, an event that I had not heard about until that moment. It reminded me just how much history is lost or overlooked, especially history that the dominant social group finds unpleasant. Since that time, I’ve learned a bit more.
One thing that I knew then, but didn’t fully grasp, was the extent to which the tenant farmers’ dispossession was the result of Federal policy. The Roosevelt administration was trying to prop up agricultural prices to rescue farmers, who had been going broke by the hundreds of thousands for many years by then. One of the tools they were using in this effort was direct support payments, paying farmers to take land out of production in order to increase prices. But a side-effect of this policy was that once farmers took their land out of production, they no longer needed workers. This doesn’t make the farmers any less culpable or racist in their attitudes, but it does help explain their motivation.
My friend Trevor Harris, who creates the Mo’ Curious podcast sponsored by Missouri Life, got interested in this topic and has been down in the Bootheel making recordings. I’m eager to find out what he obtained, and to hear the podcast that will surely come out of it.
In the meantime, I’ve learned that a documentary film was made in 1999 about the strike, entitled Oh Freedom After While. If your library allows you access to Kanopy, you can view it on that platform. It’s also viewable on Vimeo.
I shouldn’t really call The Moonflower Vine an Ozarks book, as it is set in the western Missouri prairie, in a fictionalized version of the town of Nevada, where Jetta Carleton grew up. (If you want to get a sense of this region, you should look at Leland Payton’s marvelous book of photographs, Ozark-Prairie Border.) But a couple of the major characters of the book spend considerable time in the Ozarks, and since it’s a border region I’ll expand my “Ozarks books” phrase a little to include this one.
The Moonflower Vine was first published in 1962 and was a big hit, making the bestseller list, some important book clubs, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume. Then, as books do, it faded from attention. It became one of those secret favorites, passed from enthusiast to enthusiast, until Harper Perennial brought out a new edition in 2009 with a robust introduction from Jane Smiley. That new edition helped return the book to some deserved prominence.
The novel is divided into six sections, one for each of the major characters. It begins in the more-or-less contemporary time period to its publication, then dips into the past with the next four sections, finally returning to the present at the end. So its structure is a bit challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.
But what makes The Moonflower Vine so memorable is its rich, surprising characterization. The novel’s six main characters are a rural couple and their four daughters, all of whom go through various troubles and all of whom are revealed, over time, to have secrets they are keeping from the rest of the family. The characters resist stereotyping, revealing ever-deepening layers of feeling, aspiration, frustration, and despair. It’s an immensely humane novel that refuses to excuse its characters even as it comprehends them. And for a book that made it into the Reader’s Digest condensations, it’s surprisingly frank about sexual desire. (I suspect they condensed that part right out and left the “local color” in.)
What I ultimately take away from The Moonflower Vine, though, is a deeply forgiving spirit. By one definition or another, all the characters fail. But they are never portrayed as failures. They are flawed creatures, like us all, who are doing their best with what has been handed to them. And sometimes their best is not very good. They do stupid things, they suppress their feelings, they misunderstand. And yet I found myself drawn to them, and drawn also to this landscape by Carleton’s vivid power of description. She sees this world in an intense and careful way. Some people might see this book as an exercise in nostalgia, but I think that misses its precise and comprehensive view of human nature.
From a journal article I’m reading: “On September 20, 1948, Lucinda Crenshaw, Carryola Dickson, Georgia Jones, Otelia Scaife, and Rosie Holman, all members of the North Wyatt [Missouri] Women’s Club, decided to take matters into their own hands. They walked their children from North Wyatt to the white elementary school, at the edge of the nearby town of Wyatt, and tried to enroll them in the school. They were denied permission on the grounds the state constitution of Missouri forbade African American and white children from attending school together. . . . Notes from a Delmo board meeting suggest the women were threatened with arrest for disturbing the peace.”
Just in case you are looking for ideas for a statue to replace some of those Confederate generals. And think about that date, too: 1948. These women were real pioneers.
Source: Heidi Dodson, “Race and Contested Space in the Missouri Delta,” Buildings & Landscapes 23:1 (Spring 2016), 78-101.
When you drive through the Ozarks these days, you see fairly quickly that there are actually two “Ozarks” (or more, depending on how you slice it). There are the prosperous, tech-savvy, rapidly growing urban centers like Springfield, Fayetteville, and Bentonville, and there are the decaying, aging, deep rural counties with their tattered “Trump/Pence” flags flying forlornly in the front yard a year after the election, as if reality could be altered by an act of defiant will. The fancy word for this phenomenon is “inequality,” and to some extent it’s always been the case. The fortunate areas get rich, the less fortunate areas get left behind.
Some parts of the region get the latte bars, other parts get part-time shift work at the Dollar General.An astute observer of the Ozarks economic and cultural scene is historian Jared Phillips, and he recently published a thought-provoking article on this trend, which he describes as “rural decay coupled with corporate extraction and an expansion of inequality.” If you’re at all interested in the competing visions for how to revive the rural economy, you need to read it.
I’ve been reading a new book lately, Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks by Thomas M. Kersen, who is a sociologist at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Tom grew up in a back-to-the-land community in the northern Arkansas hills, so he knows whereof he speaks regarding counterculture in the Ozarks.
The book, after a couple of chapters establishing its geographical and theoretical base, goes into a series of chapters about various groups that have existed on the cultural “edge” in the Ozarks: religious groups, music groups, alternative-living societies, and others. Although the book has an impressive scholarly apparatus, it’s clearly a work of love on Kersten’s part: he doesn’t shy away from the first person, describing his own experiences and his interactions with members of the various groups. This approach gives the book a more informal feel than many scholarly studies, which I welcomed.
Many of the chapters originated as talks given to the annual Ozarks Studies Conference, held in September in West Plains, so I had the privilege of hearing them in an earlier form as a member of the audience there. (Let me pause to give a plug to that conference, which is sponsored by Missouri State University – West Plains; if you’re at all interested in the Ozarks, it’s a great event to start attending!) But seeing them developed into book form gives me a better sense of the connecting threads.
What connects the chapters is their focus on groups and people who are at the edges of the social mainstream, what Kersen calls “liminal” regions. Inhabiting an edge region gives someone more freedom of behavior than a person or group possesses when firmly entrenched in a social structure. His theory is that the Ozarks themselves are a liminal region, and thus they attract liminal groups and individuals. It’s an intriguing argument.
Kersen covers a wide range of edge-dwellers, from music groups to religious groups to back-to-the-landers. It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite chapter, but I’d have to say the ones in which Kersen has personal experience were the most fun for me to read. He writes about well-known music groups such as the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Black Oak Arkansas, but he also goes into great detail about more obscure groups such as “The Group” (known also as the Dan Blocker Singers) and Hot Mulch, the creators of the back-to-the-land anthem “Ozark Mountain Mother Earth News Freak.” A section on UFO-focused groups introduces us to the remarkable Buck Nelson of Mountain View, Missouri, whose booklet My Trip to Mars, the Moon, and Venus prompted a long string of spaceship conferences on his remote property.
It’s tempting to see these misfits as amusing eccentrics, but the book also touches upon groups that had a darker side, such as the Purple People, the Searcy County, Arkansas, group whose strange dress and religious beliefs were underlain by a repressive and sometimes violent set of behaviors. This direction is not the ultimate province of this book, though, but I’d like to see someone take it on. I find myself wondering: if the Ozarks has proven to be a welcoming home for communal groups and eccentric agriculturalists, so too has it been a comfortable place for fanatics, cultists, and plain old scary people. I’m old enough to remember The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a violent Christian Identity group that set up a compound in northern Arkansas in the ’70s and ’80s. They were not the first, and certainly have not been the last, and even today there are extremist groups up some of those dirt roads. Being a liminal region poses threats as well as offering opportunities.
I am currently floating (metaphorically) because the University of Missouri alumni magazine just published a long essay I wrote about floating (literally). I love taking float trips on Ozark streams and tried to convey some of the feeling of those experiences.
They also assigned a writer and photographer to do a profile of me to accompany the essay. Tony Rehagen and Nic Benner both did wonderful jobs.
When I was a kid, a trip to Sam A. Baker State Park, north of Patterson, was a real treat. I had no idea who Sam A. Baker was, or what he had to do with the park. All I knew was that there would be swimming and either a cookout or dinner in the lodge, which to my young eyes seemed like the most impossibly rustic place imaginable.
As the years went on, I grew to appreciate the park more. It’s one of the oldest parks in the state, dating back to the Fish and Game Department days of the 1920s. Its namesake was an educator from Patterson who went on to be elected state superintendent of schools and then governor, and who encouraged the development of the state park system during his term in office.
We are so rich in state parks and conservation areas nowadays that it’s hard to think back to what the state was like a century ago. A lot of people thought the state had no business developing a statewide park system; taxpayer dollars, you know. (Readers of this blog know that I regularly bemoan the reactionaries who hold power in Jefferson City, but it’s worth remembering that rule by reactionaries is pretty much a norm in Missouri. The era of the Danforths and Bonds, McCaskills and Eagletons, bipartisan, consensus-seeking moderates, is more the exception. But I digress.)
The geography of Sam A. Baker State Park is a wonderful encapsulation of the eastern Ozarks. Much of its 5,000-plus acres is taken up by Mudlick Mountain, a steep and rugged hill that stands out from its surrounding terrain. There’s a fire tower on top of Mudlick, one of the many CCC projects of the Depression that created the face of the park. I must admit that I’ve never climbed up to it, but I can only imagine the view from there. This photo from AllTrails.Com gives an idea:
The CCC also built a hiking and equestrian trail that circles the park, with some stone cabins for resting along the way. Big Creek runs along much of the eastern side of the park, through a pretty shut-in area first and then with some shallows and swimming holes along the campground area. At the southeastern corner of the park, Big Creek joins the St. Francis River, and although the river is nowhere near as clear and fresh-running as the streams farther west, it still has outfitters for float trips.
When I lived in the area in the ’70s, the park hosted an annual bluegrass festival. In the fall it permitted black-powder enthusiasts to hunt for deer in a special season. It had, in other words, something for just about everyone. Decisions made in the 1920s were benefiting citizens in an unimagined future. And that is still the case today.
If people wonder why I am so enthusiastic about our state system of parks and conservation areas, they should visit just about any other state and see what kind of system is offered there. Few states have such a robust network of places to experience the outdoors, the result of decisions made years ago by people we scarcely remember. When I think about “public servants,” that’s what I think about — people who thought about the well-being of future generations who would not know about them or remember them.
And if you’re looking for places to experience the outdoors, perhaps some place you’ve not heard of before, you should visit the Facebook page of a group called Rollahiking. Those folks are the most industrious hikers I’ve ever seen! They visit some of the most out-of-the way locations in Missouri and Arkansas, and they always post great pictures.